People frequently ask me to share the best piece of financial advice I’ve ever received. Most recently, this was a common theme at the Financial Blogger Conference in Chicago. One company in attendance, creditcards.com, filmed and edited a video of various personal finance bloggers sharing their best piece of financial advice. I think it’s important for people to share what has worked for them, and their inspiration, as they succeeded in improving their financial conditions.
I find it difficult to remember my attitude towards money as a teenager. I just didn’t think about it often. I understood the importance of earning an income, I had a bank account, and I had occasional jobs as I was an older teenager, but I never placed any emphasis on money management. I didn’t think about budgeting, investing, or looking for income opportunities because I was mostly concerned with my extra-curricular activities first and academics second. I don’t recall my parents ever making money a real issue, and I’m fine with that; if kids can be protected from the added stress of financial management until they’re older, they’ll do a better job of making the most of their adolescence.
But I did sail through college and my first few jobs without thinking about my financial condition, and I eventually paid for it. I had student loan debt, credit card debt, and thanks to some other mistakes, unpaid speeding tickets, a suspended driver’s license, an auto insurance surcharge, and many other expenses and debts I could have avoided.
I didn’t always get along with my boss, but he was a leader whose primary responsibility included motivating a group of 128 talented teenagers and young adults through monthly weekend rehearsals during the fall, two-week camps during the spring, and a seven-week tour across the country during the summer. It was a music program, but it also presented the group of students with the opportunity to improve themselves and their approaches to life, with lessons that would stick with them and inform how they live each day in the future.
The advice that has stuck with me the most, although it didn’t sink in until years later and I didn’t recognize it at the time, isn’t a piece of financial advice. It’s advice about life, attitudes, and philosophy that can be applied to personal finance. While I don’t remember his exact words, it boils down to this: Every moment is a choice.
There’s nothing unique about this idea. The concept has been used by motivational speakers, like Patch Adams and Wayne Dyer who focus on making conscious life choices, and by others who see this idea as a call to connect better with a supreme being of some sort. I am not a big fan of motivational speakers or preachers, so I carefully select concepts that have meaning to me, allowing myself to think independently. I dismissed the idea that sleeping through an alarm clock was a choice. I dismissed the idea that arriving at the office late due to a traffic jam was a choice. I didn’t even stop to consider that my financial condition, thousands of dollars in debt, was a choice.
It wasn’t until I was out of a job and had no place to live that I started to reconsider my approach to life. I’m forever grateful to my father, who helped me re-start my life from a better position with financial assistance, and to his long-term girlfriend, who allowed me to reside in her house while I changed the direction of my life. My time there gave me the opportunity to look at the choices I made, accept responsibility, and move forward with a new approach. I took the idea that every moment is a choice and applied that to my finances.
- I started paying attention to my finances. There’s a moment in the film The Matrix where Neo, the main character, accepts that he is “The One” and finally sees the world around it for what it truly is. This is a powerful awakening. I saw that I was in control of my life, and in order for me to be in control of my finances, I needed to know where I stood and where I was going.
- I made decisions that improved my financial condition. Recognizing that without a car, my options were limited, I found a job that was accessible by train. It wasn’t an ideal job, but I eventually made it my own. With income, I was able to save, and I moved out as soon as I could to avoid being a further burden on family.
- I educated myself. I started reading more about managing money, particularly the Motley Fool discussion board that focused on living below your means. This eventually led to me creating Consumerism Commentary as a place to track my financial decisions — the choices I was making to improve my life.
When you don’t live as if every moment is a choice, you leave decision-making up to the world around you. You are subject to the whim of chance, and if the outcome isn’t what you’d like, there is always an excuse. There is always some way to blame your circumstances. Here are some of the excuses I’ve used to avert responsibility in the past:
- “The road was closed due to a car accident.”
- “I’m not feeling well today.”
- “I didn’t know about this bill.”
- “My car broke down.”
All of the above may have been true when I said it, but they are results of choices I made — the choice not to anticipate road closures or live closer to the destination, the choice to keep myself healthy, the choice to manage my finances and organize my bills, the choice to take care of my vehicle properly. Yes, sometimes there are forces beyond one’s control, but for the most part, the choices we make can make those external forces less relevant.
With this article, I have a choice. I could use my advice to deliver a direct motivational call for readers to take an active role in their lives my looking at every moment as a choice, or I could present the idea of every moment being a choice as a concept that worked well for me, and leaving the choice of whether to accept this approach up to the reader. I’m not a fan of motivational speakers, so I choose the latter.
This idea isn’t just about finances, it’s a philosophy that helps anyone become more involved in their life. Life is short, and taking ownership and responsibility adds to the reward you feel with each success and the drive to improve after every failure. It’s a life philosophy but it ties so well into personal finance. I wish I had come to this conclusion earlier in my life, but if my past experiences were to be any different than they are, I’d be a different person in some unknowable way today.
What’s the best financial advice you’ve ever received?
Published or updated October 18, 2011.